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Wings Of Change

As Southwest Airlines grows, its technology strategy must continue to evolve. Part 2 in a series
The centerpiece of Southwest's efforts to modernize the airport concourse is its airport application suite, which started with the rollout of self-serve kiosks three years ago. Now the technology team, 820 people strong, is replacing the legacy check-in system agents use with modules almost identical to those on the kiosks but with a few extras, such as access to security watch lists. The check-in, ticketing, baggage, and security modules aim to shorten transaction times at counters, improve usability, and eliminate a lot of data entry.

Built with Java 2 Enterprise Edition using IBM's WebSphere development environment, the graphical apps for check-in agents, rolling out by 2007, will replace green-screen technology that requires agents to memorize commands to make changes. So, when a person arrives early for a short hop, the agent will be able to trigger functions to change the reservation, check in the passenger, issue a boarding pass, and update the back-end passenger-name record with just a few clicks.

More detailed customer records are key to these IT transformations and to preserving Southwest's high-touch style, Nealon says. The airline is working to expand its proprietary customer database, which now holds only the transactional records of customers who pay by credit cards, gift cards, or airline vouchers, and get E-tickets. The idea is to gain a broader historical view of all passengers. That data will be used to inform airport employees of certain passengers' requirements, better predict trends, and do targeted marketing.

THE UPSHOT

Southwest is a success when it comes to simplicity, but now it's time to focus on IT in core operations, before growth puts profits in jeopardy



The airline's plans include everything from expanding self-service kiosks to modernizing maintenance



It's doing it all in Southwest style--shrinking the tech budget by relying on reusable code, services-oriented architectures, and messaging technologies


An old Sabre reservations system (which operates independently of Sabre's global distribution system) contains data relevant to each passenger's specific booking--including those who pay by check or cash. This information will be incorporated into the expanded database by 2007, along with frequent-flier data stored in another database. Southwest won't provide technical details but says the expanded database, which will cross-reference the passenger-name records in the reservations system, will be updated to enable fares paid with cash or personal checks to be treated as E-ticket transactions, which currently isn't possible.

The growth anticipated by Southwest isn't just spurring it to automate its "above-wing" operations but also to modernize maintenance. This effort began in September with the delivery of the first part of an automated production-control system that already has resulted in a 10% to 15% reduction in the amount of time planes undergoing scheduled maintenance are out of service, and it has since been extended to heavy maintenance, which can take a plane out of service for as long as three weeks.

Inspectors use Panasonic tablets to write up problems on-site and wirelessly feed data into a centralized content library that publishes information in real time to kiosks used by maintenance crews. Southwest estimates technicians spend 30% to 40% of their time searching for information, and the kiosks help reduce that. "There's nothing more frustrating for a mechanic than to have to stop what he's doing to chase something down," says Dave Boyer, manager of maintenance projects.

That was a smart investment, Forrester's Harteveldt says, because keeping aircraft in service as much as possible translates right to the bottom line. "It takes scheduling from the random to the precise," he says. The maintenance unit will begin implementing the production-control system in May for what it calls its phased check, a 12- to 14-hour overnight process in which more routine maintenance is performed.

Boyer's maintenance crew also is engaged in a project to better synchronize maintenance planning and aircraft routing. The effort involves balancing a few critical objectives: preventing interruptions in flight schedules, making certain that aircraft don't end up at airports where scheduled maintenance checks can't be performed, and not having aircraft arrive at maintenance facilities before their scheduled checks are due. "We tend to get conservative on maintenance, which means doing too much, which translates into lots of costs," Boyer says. The company is building an optimization engine to integrate and analyze scheduling and maintenance systems that will ensure that costs are kept down and maintenance remains a high priority.

There may be less innovation here than imitation of what many legacy carriers have been doing to stay alive. Southwest sees it as selectively applying IT to its core operations before growth puts its profits in jeopardy. There are some risks, Harteveldt says: More technology may begin to move Southwest away from its credo of simplicity. But a big factor in its favor is that the airline is starting from a position of strength.

"Technology can help," Nealon says, "but if you're starting with a fundamentally flawed business model, it's not going to fix that." Fortunately for Southwest, its business model doesn't appear to need fixing. And the IT moves it's making now indicate the airline isn't waiting for that model to break.

Continue to the sidebars: Business: Southwest Isn't Just For Leisure Travelers